European techies launch proximity tracing app initiative

Smartphones are a great way of tracking the spread of the pandemic, but that comes with major civil liberties implications.

So a bunch of European tech companies and research organizations have got together to launch an initiative called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing. As the name implies, it’s all about being able to detect how many people are exposed to a given outbreak, and warn them, without compromising their privacy.

“PEPP-PT makes it possible to interrupt new chains of SARS-CoV-2 transmission rapidly and effectively by informing potentially exposed people,” says the new website. “We are a large and inclusive European team. We provide standards, technology, and services to countries and developers. We embrace a fully privacy-preserving approach. We build on well-tested, fully implemented proximity measurement and scalable backend service. We enable tracing of infection chains across national borders.

Right now they’re inviting more people to get involved and have even published a manifesto for anyone considering it. Among the founding members are Fraunhofer and Vodafone. We can see no evidence of the European Commission being involved in this initiative but they presumably at least payed their respects to the continental Godfather before they made their move.

Video conferencing app downloads go through the roof

Mobile app tracker App Annie reports that downloads of business apps, especially video conferencing one, have exploded in recent weeks.

It’s already becoming redundant to explain why exceptional events are occurring these days, but to avoid all doubt it’s coz of coronavirus. In the week of 14-21 March there were 62 million business apps downloaded worldwide, according to an App Annie blog, which was 45% up on the previous week and a 90% increase on the equivalent week a year ago. That was the week in which many countries introduced compulsory lockdowns for the first time.

Of those four video conferencing apps seems to have led the way: Google Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom Cloud Meetings and Houseparty. As you can see from the chart below, all four experienced massive spikes in demand, compared to a year ago.

“As people face uncertain timelines for the length of social isolation, video conferencing apps have the potential to vastly influence our daily habits — breaking down geological barriers and fostering the ability to work and socialize relatively seamlessly,” concluded the blog

“It is an unprecedented time for the world and an incredibly dynamic time for mobile — we are seeing shifts in consumer behavior surface daily across virtually every sector. We will continue to report on the vast impact coronavirus is having on the mobile economy as it charts a new path forward for our mobile habits.”

TomTom to fill the Google mapping void for Huawei

Dutch navigation specialist TomTom has been announced as Huawei’s replacement for Google’s mapping expertise, following the firm’s entry on the US Entity List.

While there was no doomsday sirens sounding when the US banned suppliers from working with Huawei, the trickle-down effects are starting to become much more prominent, especially in the consumer business unit which has fuelled so much growth over the last few years.

“We can confirm that developers can now use TomTom Maps APIs, Map content and traffic services via Huawei’s developer portal,” a TomTom spokesperson said.

Details are thin on the ground for the moment, though TomTom has confirmed it has entered into a multi-year agreement to act as the powerhouse behind navigation, mapping and traffic applications which will feature on Huawei devices.

Huawei’s friction with the White House has been well-documented over the last 12-18 months, though the impact seems to be more of a slow-burner than apocalyptic. When similar sanctions were placed on ZTE in 2017, the disruption to the vendors supply chain was almost an extinction level event. Some US politicians might have hoped the same would be the same for Huawei, though the damage is much more nuanced.

Thanks to the ‘Made in China 2025’ and perhaps more foresight from the management team, Huawei has a much more diverse supply chain and less of a reliance on the US than ZTE. When President Trump signed the executive order banning US suppliers from working with Huawei, it was certainly notable, but the impact was muted, evidence by the fact Huawei’s revenues have continued to grow through the period.

But the consumer division, and Huawei’s smartphones in particular present some difficult questions. And almost all of them focus around Google.

No new Huawei devices will feature any of the Google applications. The immediate challenge is replacing the operating software, Android, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. For Huawei’s OS to be competitive, it needs to have a developer ecosystem, and for many of the applications to work properly, mapping data needs to be plugged into the applications.

While it might not have the reputation of Google, TomTom is certainly no stranger to the mapping and navigation game. Those who are a bit longer in the tooth might remember TomTom being a mapping innovator in the noughties, though it seemingly lost the battle for supremacy with Google. Few get the better of the Googlers, so there is little shame, though this could act as a spring board into a brighter future for TomTom.

TomTom claims to travel more than three million kilometres a year to collect mapping data, as well as augmenting this information with satellite imagery, as well as drawing from data from government and private sources, aerial imagery, and field analysts. The business already has numerous partnerships in place with the likes of Subaru, Alfa Romeo and Stelvio for driving navigation, as well as 5G initiatives with Verizon.

This is a critical step in validating the Huawei OS and developer ecosystem as location-based data is very important nowadays for the performance of many apps and security features. TomTom fills a noticeable hole.

What is worth noting is that while TomTom will offer mapping data to Huawei and the developer community, this is should not be seen as a direct replacement for the Google Maps application. This is a feature which offers basic navigation, which will be simple enough to replicate, though the embedded features will take time. Through Google Maps you can book tables at restaurants, see how busy trains are, access reviews on local business, amongst other benefits. This will take a significant amount of time to replace.

Mobile games account for the majority of all global gaming software spend

Mobile analytics firm App Annie has published its latest annual state of the market, which reveals the mobile gaming market is going from strength to strength.

Global spend on mobile games reached 56% of all game software in 2019, according to the report. Other notable findings include a forecast that mobile advertising spend will increase by 26% this year, 95% of spending on non-gaming apps coming from subscriptions and that Gen Z has 60% more sessions per user in the most popular apps when compared to older generations.

“In 2019, consumers downloaded 1.7 billion Business apps and spent over $500 million in them, up 10% and 25% year over year, respectively — an indication of both increasing demand for business apps and willingness to pay for the value they provide,” said Lexi Sydow, Senior Market Insights Manager at App Annie.

“In 2019, companies with mobile as a core focus to their business had an 825% higher average valuation than non-mobile companies. While many of the companies focused on B2C, the consumption habits are clear: consumers are spending 25% of their waking hours on their mobile devices each day — clocking in at 3 hours and 40 minutes per day. Mobile is a vital channel for interacting with consumers, and companies that succeed in mobile are reaping financial rewards.”

App Annie provided loads of charts and even an infographic (remember them?), so we’ll let them do the talking on both global and UK app trends.

Visa drops $5.3 billion on Plaid in bid to future proof itself

Financial services giant Visa is acquiring fintech app enabler Plaid in an apparent bid to ensure it doesn’t get left behind in the app economy.

Despite the $5.3 billion price tag, few people will have heard of Plaid. That’s because its sole function is to act as the plumbing in linking together apps with bank accounts, mainly in the US. It’s easy to assume that Visa and Mastercard already controlled nearly all of this but it seems not, with a quarter of Americans using Plaid to link their bank accounts with apps such as Venmo.

“We are extremely excited about our acquisition of Plaid and how it enhances the growth trajectory of our business,” said Al Kelly, CEO of Visa. “Plaid is a leader in the fast growing fintech world with best-in-class capabilities and talent. The acquisition, combined with our many fintech efforts already underway, will position Visa to deliver even more value for developers, financial institutions and consumers.

“This acquisition is the natural evolution of Visa’s 60-year journey from safely and securely connecting buyers and sellers to connecting consumers with digital financial services. The combination of Visa and Plaid will put us at the epicenter of the fintech world, expanding our total addressable market and accelerating our long-term revenue growth trajectory.”

“Plaid’s mission is to make money easier for everyone, and we are excited for this opportunity to continue delivering on that promise at a global scale,” said Zach Perret, CEO and co-founder of Plaid. “Visa is trusted by billions of consumers, businesses and financial institutions as a key part of the financial ecosystem, and together Visa and Plaid can support the rapid growth of digital financial services.”

Visa and a bunch of its competitors were early investors in Plaid, so it seems to have the blessing of the financial services establishment. It looks like the price paid was around double the valuation implied by Plaid’s last round of funding, so Visa had to compensate its peers generously to have it all to itself. Investors didn’t seem that bothered either way, however, with Visa’s share price barely acknowledging the news. Here’s a slide from Visa’s presentation summarising the thinking behind the move.

Google and Samsung camera app vulnerabilities exposed

Research by application security specialist Checkmarx has revealed that the camera apps on Google and Samsung smartphones can be hacked.

The findings were published in a blog post by the company, having previously been shared with Google and Samsung to give them a chance to patch the vulnerabilities before the whole world found out about them. So while this isn’t sensational news, because the vulnerability no longer exists, it’s still good PR for Checkmarx and a general Android security wake up call.

“We appreciate Checkmarx bringing this to our attention and working with Google and Android partners to coordinate disclosure,” said a statement from Google in the blog. “The issue was addressed on impacted Google devices via a Play Store update to the Google Camera Application in July 2019. A patch has also been made available to all partners.” The Indian government must have been disappointed.

Specifically it was found that third party apps could exploit the app permission system, through which new apps ask for your permission to access certain smartphone functions. A loophole allowed apps, once they had got permission to access the camera, to give remote control of the camera to baddies, thus allowing them to record what you’re up to.

“In doing so, our researchers determined a way to enable a rogue application to force the camera apps to take photos and record video, even if the phone is locked or the screen is turned off,” said the blog. “Our researchers could do the same even when a user was is in the middle of a voice call… Of course, a video also contains sound. It was interesting to prove that a video could be initiated during a voice call. We could easily record the receiver’s voice during the call and we could record the caller’s voice as well.”

Facebook can’t stop dabbling in financial services

Not content with trying to create a new global currency, Facebook now lets you pay for stuff through all its apps.

The new financial service is simply called Facebook Pay and it lets you use Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp to pay for stuff. This isn’t an extension of Libra, it should be stressed, and is more of a competitor to the payment platforms provided by Google and Apple on smartphones. Indeed Facebook’s biggest challenge is to explain to its users why they need yet another mobile payment platform when there are already so many to choose from.

This bit of the announcement tells us where Facebook thinks USPs can be found: “Facebook Pay will begin rolling out on Facebook and Messenger this week in the US for fundraisers, in-game purchases, event tickets, person-to-person payments on Messenger and purchases from select Pages and businesses on Facebook Marketplace. And over time, we plan to bring Facebook Pay to more people and places, including for use across Instagram and WhatsApp.”

In common with the Google and Apple equivalents, Facebook pay merely acts as a conduit for actual financial service providers like credit cards. The company seems to have identified latent demand for a more seamless payments experience when using its apps. Alternatively it could have taken a look at how huge WeChat is in China and decided it wants some of that action.

Facebook tends to copy rather than innovate and, when it comes to minor features, this approach seems to have served it well. Trying to recreate WeChat in the US, however, is a much larger undertaking and will require some degree of market education, which won’t be easy. Having said that the CCMI people seem to have similar ideas, so US consumers look set for a bit of a mobile revolution in the coming months.

Google forms alliance with some Android security specialists

The App Defense Alliance brings together Google, ESET, Lookout, and Zimperium to combat baddies on Android.

Considering how huge and diverse the Android ecosystem is it’s surprising how few malware catastrophes it has had. Maybe that thanks in part to the work of companies like Lookout, that offer freemium security apps on the Play Store. Google has apparently decided to be a bit more proactive on the security front itself, but without undermining all the good work that has already been done, hence the creation of the App Defense Alliance.

Working closely with our industry partners gives us an opportunity to collaborate with some truly talented researchers in our field and the detection engines they’ve built,” blogged Dave Kleidermacher, VP, Android Security & Privacy. “This is all with the goal of, together, reducing the risk of app-based malware, identifying new threats, and protecting our users.”

The clever bit involves integrating the Google Play Protect detection systems with each partner’s scanning engines. This will result in several pairs of eyes having a close look at apps that are in the queue for publication on the Play store and, in theory, resuce the chances of any of them containing any moody code.

Judging by an interview Kleidermacher gave Wired, from Google’s perspective this is all about coordinating the security efforts of a bunch of previously autonomous players. What’s in it for the other partners isn’t so obvious. In the Wired article they said all the right things about being greater than the sum of their parts, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of Google cash helped persuade them too.

Google launches a bunch of hardware

Internet giant Google has launched the latest version of its own smartphone, together with a bunch of other stuff, as it continues to expand its hardware offering.

The tagline for the Pixel 4 smartphone is that it’s the most helpful version yet. On the surface this is a reference to Google Assistant, which has been beefed up with even more AI power to ensure it knows what you want before you do, thus sparing you the pain and indignity of having to do things like choose, decide, think, etc.

On those rare occasions when the phone feels the need to consult its owner about their best interests, it’s further assisted by improved speech recognition, which is now largely processed locally. This feature also enables a new voice recorder app that will be able to transcribe in real time – very handy for lazy journalists.

Other than that the Pixel 4 seems to come with all the expected bells and whistles; an improved camera, better chips, etc. You can possibly find out a bit more in the first of the videos below, we’re not sure if the motion sensor will be more help or hinderance. It will ship globally on October 24, costing $799 for the regular one and $899 for one that’s a bit bigger.

On top of that Google also launched some new BlueTooth ear buds, a smart speaker called the Next Mini, a wifi router incorporating the Next Mini called Next Wifi and a new laptop called the Pixelbook Go. Goole has been generous with its YouTube videos for this launch so we’ll let them do the rest of the talking.

 

Apple U-turns again to pull HK map app under pressure from Beijing

Apple has removed the crowd-sourced app HKmap.live, favoured by the protesters in Hong Kong, from its local App Store, after being blasted by China’s state media.

The submission of the mapping app, developed on top of the web version which could enable users to instantly track the police movements, among other things on the roads, was first rejected by Apple, on the ground that “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.” This caused strong protest from both local users in Hong Kong and politicians in the US so Apple reversed its decision and made the app available. The US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) told his followers on Twitter that Apple admitted it “mistakenly” failed to go through full review process the first time:

Shortly after the change of mind by Apple, the People’s Daily, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s major propaganda outlets, accused Apple of “helping HK rioters engage in more violence”. Apple quickly undertook a second reversal in days to take down the app. The company said in a statement on the decision that the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.” The web version is still available.

This is only one of the latest actions Apple has taken after finding itself caught in a perfect political storm. One day earlier it also removed Quartz, the online news publication, from the China App Store, following complaints from the Chinese government. Apple told Quartz that the app “includes content that is illegal in China”, reported The Verge.

Quartz believed this might refer to its discussion on VPN technologies, the use of which is illegal in China, and its coverage of and links to coverage of the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Quartz’s website is also blocked by China’s Great Firewall. A week earlier when Apple updated its operating system, iPhone users who set their locale to  Hong Kong and Macau found the Taiwan flag had disappeared from emojis.

This is just one of the highest profile cases of global companies contorting themselves to appease local political interests, with China the centre of attention not the least because of its reputation as one of the most censorious countries, Apple vs. China only epitomises the delicate balance almost all global companies are forced to strike, and not always successfully. Whenever they enter markets that operate very differently to their domestic one, these companies, especially those from North America and Western Europe, have to make a choice between the values of their origin and market pressure.

Increasingly we have seen companies surrender to market pressure, which has led to more either remedial or even pre-emptive self-censorship. Such conflict has a long history in the digital age. Back in 2010, Google pulled out of China when it decided to no longer comply with the latter’s demand for censoring search results. In the same year, India, Indonesia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, among others, demanded access to the encrypted communication carried out by the then king of instant messaging, BlackBerry Messenger, for national security and data localisation purposes. RIM, the then owner of BlackBerry, bowed to the Saudi pressure, and Nokia, who also operated messaging services, decided to set up a local data centre in India.

Recently we have seen Google’s repeated attempts to re-enter China, by offering willingly to censor content to please the Chinese authorities, despite backlashes in its own office. Meanwhile games developer Blizzard had faced a backlash for acting against a Hong Kong protester, as has the US NBA for similar activity.